Monday, March 29, 2010

Theatre Review: "When January Feels Like Summer" at City Theatre-28th March 2010

Cori Thomas’ play, When January Feels Like Summer world-premiering at City Theatre, at first feels like a lightweight character study but, as its time moves on, the colors deepen and begin to shimmer. Most especially actor Debargo Sanyal’s brilliance shines. Admire as well four other exceptional actors and a fine director. Over the two hours and fifteen minutes of exposure to them you become immersed in they who they are.

Contemporary New York City is the setting. And, at first, given Anne Mundell’s convincing generic subway station set you may think that much of what happens will be along such tracks. But, in fact, the set could better suggest characters going places they do not expect.

Street-talkin’ homeboy Devaun gets real riled up because some guy seems to wanna homosex him. So he and his buddy Jeron gotta warn people in the hood about the danger to others. That connects them with Nirmala, a no-longer youthful Indian-American woman who runs a convenience store. Her brother Ishan, taking charge of the store at times, is working at converting himself into becoming a herself, hence a sister, named Indira. Devaun prides himself on his ability to romance women and is attracted to Indira. Meanwhile Isfan/Indira tries to match up Nirmala with Joe, a neighborhood sanitation worker.

That doesn’t sound like much. But in When January Feels Like Summer playwright Thomas, evidently intending a comedy, has made Devaun’s vocabulary-challenged happiness, his vigorous innocence and his unintentional charm a person who reaches out to hug you, more than to make you laugh. Or at least so it feels with Pittsburgh actor Joshua Ellis Reese digging into the role in spades.

Debargo Sanyal’s take on Isfan becoming Indira conveys such deep understanding and vulnerability that, as much as you might find funny his efforts to become a woman, more importantly, Sanyal makes the character genuine. So much so that by the time the play concludes you can’t help wanting to hug him/her too.

Credit director Patterson for making the most of all these talents. Credit Patterson equally for finding the right depth in the awkward emerging of affection between Nirmala and Joe. This becomes especially moving having learned about Nirmala’s loveless marriage. And Gita Reddy’s version of Nirmala has a completely believable fragility that makes this possible, her being touched becomes touching.

Pittsburgh’s Carter Redwood as Jeron and John Marshall Jones as Joe add to the constant sense that you are watching real people.

Frequently you could be amused. Ultimately though, I think you’ll be moved by
the underlying compassion and sensitivity of this play.

When January Feels Like Summer continues through April 11 at the South Side’s
City Theatre 412/ 431 CITY (2489).

Theatre Review: "The Light in the Piazza" from Pittsburgh Playhouse Conservatory Theatre-28 March 2010

Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre students have taken on a difficult assignment, that is to make the best out of playwright Craig Lucas and songwriter Adam Guettell’s musical The Light in the Piazza. This multi-Tony award winner has a fragile, almost elemental story enhanced by some beautiful melodic writing, especially for multiple voices. The cast does exceptionally well with the singing, but neither some major performers nor director Scott Wise have overcome the problems inherent in the script, the characters or the staging in such a small space as the Rauh Theater.

Most of this takes place in Florence Italy in 1953 when Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara are visiting as tourists. 20 year old Italian Fabrizio Naccarelli instantly falls in love with Clara. And she falls in love with him. Margaret tries to break up the relationship fearing that Clara is not mature enough to handle it, because 26 year old Clara had an accident years before which has impeded her mental and emotional development. Fabrizio’s father is likewise against the relationship learning that Clara is older than she looks and behaves.He seems to get over the problem quickly though. Thus questionable premises dominate what happens, although they may have been accepted in the less sophisticated time of 1953, even though the musical is from 2003. There is also a potential interesting sub-plot regarding the emotional and physical distance between Clara’s father and Margaret which could have been better developed but here feels marginal. i.e the story needs help. And the choreography looks patent, especially in this space.

Making the characters genuine in The Light in the Piazza remains a problem among such student performers but Katie Sexton always looks and sounds right as Margaret and many people in the company do very well in the constant Italian dialogue. Courtney Bassett sings with a touching and beautiful voice as Clara but doesn’t appear capable of conveying Clara’s complex and fractured personality. Jaron Frand’s version of Fabrizio works rather well, although he doesn’t seem sufficiently immature. And as Fabrizio’s father, Adam Soniak looks completely wrong for the part.

Guettell’s score gets fine rendering by an on-stage string-based quintet led from the piano by Camille Rolla whose visible, constantly bobbing head could be a major distraction for much of the audience. Director Wise should have placed her somewhere less in view, perhaps facing the cast, which, as is often the case in musicals, could see the music director’s cues.

Considering that this show won many Tony Awards you have to credit the original cast and director for doing it so well and acknowledge that students may have a difficult time equaling such high standards.

The Light in the Piazza continues only through next Saturday at Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. 412/621-4445-

Friday, March 26, 2010

Theatre review:"Alice" from the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. 28th March 2010

Alice is the name of a lively entertainment in a world-premiere from the University of Pittsburgh’s Repertory Theatre. Writers Emilia Anderson and Tamara Goldbogen have taken Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, with a talented student cast, turned it into loopy hour and a half of visual and sonic imagination. Credit directors Goldbogen and Sam Turich for making it a fantastic non-stop free-for- all, spinning off the nonsense dimensions of Carroll’s story. Look for, listen for ,all kinds of circus-like whoopee. It even has a ring. Clowns. Simple puppets. Wacky costumes. Pratfalls. Slap and stomp dancing. Acrobatics. Constant, colorful musical decorations.

The script, positing Alice as a would-be tightrope walker, flies over Carroll’s nuggets of wisdom and zippy aphorisms, instead lightly following Alice’s trip while making the most of indelible characters such as the Queen of Hearts, the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and the Mad Hatter. Meanwhile band leader Buddy Nutt and various members of the cast takes turns playing many standard instruments plus such off-beat items as a a tuba, tuned glasses, musical saws, a sitar, and a didgeridoo-like device.

All of the cast members romp through their hectic paces with physical agility, many showing special style, such as Ryan Daniel Very as the way-out Mad Hatter and Jeremy Enz-Doerschner who shows he knows how to be a red-nosed clown Plus Ruffin Mansfield Prentiss III and Martel Manning as the Mouse and the Rabbit infectiously prance a dance. They can’t be beat with their syncopated feet.

Suitable for kids. Suitable for adults. Bleacher seating. Tickets at the door.

Alice. Through next Saturday, April 3rd at University of Pittsburgh’s Studio Theater in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning, Oakland. Tickets: 412-624-PLAY (7529) Info:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: "The Mercy Seat" at Off the Wall Theatre-Sunday 7th March 2010

A dynamic and disturbing experience can shake you up at Washington PA’s Off the Wall Theatre. The play takes place in Manhattan the night after the 9/11 trauma. It’s The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute. Although that tragedy occurred 9 years ago, it still resonates for many people. And it can continue to do so in this intense play. And, after departing from such intimate pain, you could find the present looking and feeling somehow different. Credit the effect of perceptive one-time New Yorker, director Robyne Parrish and two thoroughly convincing Pittsburgh actors, Michael E. Moats and Adrienne Wehr.

Actually the play does not concentrate on what happened at The World Trade Center. Rather, LaBute focuses on two lovers and their struggles to come to terms with where they are with each other at that time. Ben and Abby are alone in her apartment, where they had been that fateful morning, having left their mutual office in the Twin Towers for some quick sex. She, single, is his boss. He’s married. They’d been furtively connecting for three years. Ben sees the historical moment as an opportunity to be listed among the dead and missing and to escape his responsibilities, a way for them to start a new life together. Abby wants him to publically vow his love for her and disavow his family.

The Mercy Seat’s volatile, high intensity talk comes full of accusations, revelations and residual guilt. It smokes and sizzles while outside and on a TV screen the details of death and destruction repeat and repeat, even as these people keep on circling the same emotional spaces, verbally jabbing at each other, landing blows, then clinching in desperate need, an uncertain contest with no one winning points, even though she’s stronger than he is. In fact, LaBute may have fallen down here; they really seem mis-matched

Without him saying that much about what happened not far from the windows of this apartment, LaBute shows people with parallels to the World Trade Center victims, trying to survive, trying to make sense of what is happening to them. Hoping to go on living happily, even if these don’t seem like happy people.

Moreover, in The Mercy Seat he has written characters with genuine and specific personalities. Articulate, intelligent and self-aware, even if neither of them seems admirable. And his well-conceived, often-fractured dialogue dovetails with their fractured natures. You might need to know, by the way, that they speak very explicitly about sex, usually in street language.

However, in this 100 minute experience, the first half seems to be treading the same ground, tension, release, tension. But then, something remarkable comes together, picking up clarity, speed and more concentrated intensity. So, by the time something else unexpected happens,you may feel as shaken as they.

Michael E. Moats version of Ben comes across superbly, creating a genuine sense of a man lost in his own confusion about what he wants and who he is, yet reasonable and bright enough to be candid about his limitations. As for Adrienne Wehr’s Abby, she remarkably creates the image of a woman bristling with defensive antagonism and yet, ultimately, tender, vulnerable and desperately emotionally needy.

Clearly director Parrish has found ways to get the most out of these talents. She has also made thorough and natural use of a true-to-life set thereby evoking a sense of reality rather than fiction. She also tellingly brings out some of the character’s inner workings in how and where they move as well as what they do with the every day trappings of life, furniture, cell phones, kitchen utensils.

As for the title, an explanation of the meaning ventures into the arcane. And since this play does not seem like an intellectual abstraction, even if you can find symbols, hold fast to your seat: the sense of reality could you make you ask questions about your own life and about the impermanence of what we take for granted.

The Mercy Seat continues through March 20th at Off the Wall Theatre in Washington, PA. 724/ 873-3576